Shona and Luke had lived in Symington for almost two years now. Thistle Cottage in Main Street was their first home together. It had been in the ownership of generations of the Wilson family stretching back over a hundred years. Shona and Luke had transformed the tired old cottage into a beautiful, tastefully decorated home – a combination of Shona's interior designing skills and Luke's flair for DIY. The damp patch to right of chimney breast had worried them at first but it had gone away over the first summer. However, as their second winter set in, it was back.
'I told you I could smell damp again,' said Shona. 'Look! There it is – same place as before.'
'I don't think I'm up to tackling this, Shona. I'm going to have to get a builder in to see what's causing it.'
Thistle Cottage hadn't always been a domestic property. Shona and Luke had borrowed a copy of a short history of the village from the local library and were intrigued to find a mention of their cottage in the chapter A stroll round the village. Up until at least 1900, it had been the Thistle Inn, standing on the opposite corner of Kerrix Road to the Old Smiddy, now Trinity Cottage. Ploughmen would leave their horses at the Smiddy, then go for a few drinks in the Thistle. The horses knew the way home. The local historian then went on to speculate how Thistle Cottage might have been caught up in the politics of the time:
Supporters of the radical Society of the Friends of the People were said to meet secretly in the back room to discuss the achievements of the French and American Revolutions and the radical activities springing up all over Scotland and beyond. Their guarded conversations would have been in hushed tones in contrast to the raucous laughter and singing in the bar. They would alternate their meetings between the Thistle Inn and the Black Bull (now the Wheatsheaf Inn) to avoid drawing attention to themselves. Similar groups were meeting in Mauchline, Irvine, Tarbolton, Strathaven, Dumfries and Paisley.
In Ayrshire, the radicals had a champion in the poet Robert Burns. Burns was under some pressure because of his job as a government exciseman to deny that he had radical sympathies, but he hid his politics in plain view. He would sometimes use historic or masonic language to cloak the real meaning of poems like 'Scots Wha Hae' and 'A Man's a Man For A' That'.
Wherever there were radical groups, there were also 'Pitt's informers' – agent provocateurs in the pay of the authorities – spying on activities, stirring up unrest and reporting the names of those involved. William Pitt had become the youngest ever British prime minister in 1783 at the age of 24. The Pitt government waged a vigorous propaganda campaign contrasting the ordered society of Britain dominated by the aristocracy and the gentry with the 'anarchy' of the French Revolution, and always sought to associate British 'radicals' with the revolution in France.
There were about 200 prosecutions of 'radicals' suspected of sympathy with the French Revolution in British courts in the 1790s. This network of government agents was ultimately successful in crushing radical dissent and having the 'ringleaders' rounded up, imprisoned, executed or transported to the colonies. In Scotland, the leaders of the radical movement, John Baird, Andrew Hardie and James Wilson, were executed in 1820 after taking part in an abortive uprising in Glasgow.
I don't know if John McKinlay had any radical ancestors himself, but he came highly recommended as a builder who always did a good job at a reasonable cost. It didn't take him long to discover the cause of the dampness problem. Breaking through the chimney breast to the right of the wood burner fire, he found that some of the masonry had been chiselled out leaving a cavity into which had been wedged a bronze casket. The resulting debris had blocked off ventilation causing the damp. Once the casket had been levered out, he was able to fill in the cavity and insert an air brick, leaving just a bit of cosmetic decoration for Luke to take care of.
As soon as John left, Shona lifted the casket onto the table. It was locked, so Luke set about prising it open with a screwdriver. Inside they found a copy of Thomas Paine's Rights of Man
; a tattered red banner; a tricolore cockade of red white and blue – the type worn on the bonnet of a French revolutionary; a silver quaich with the inscription 'Symington's Society of Friends of the People' and a parchment scroll bound with a purple ribbon.
Shona carefully slipped off the ribbon and unrolled the scroll. Together they read the words written in a now fading green ink:
To Symington's brave Friends of the People:
Thou of an independent mind,
With soul resolved, with soul resigned;
Prepared Power's proudest frown to brave,
Who wilt not be, nor have a slave;
Virtue alone who dost revere,
Thy own reproach alone dost fear –
Approach this shrine, and worship here
Signed in my own hand.